215 S. Main St., Stillwater, 651-342-0215
If you haven’t been to Stillwater lately, now is a good time to go. In summer, this Victorian outpost unfurls along the gleaming St. Croix, its riverfront lush and green. On Main Street, several newly opened shops brighten the handsome red-brick buildings. A shining addition, First National Green Room, in the old Shane’s on Main, is a tasty new option.
The place is spare, yet warm. Stripped down to its gray stone and timber bones with a soaring ceiling, the space is softened by elegant white chandeliers and rosewood tables. The long, narrow dining area is anchored by a central bar and open kitchen, with a loft and balcony one floor up. The co-owners, chef Christopher Durant and bartender Stanton Schmitt, met at nearby Marx Fusion Bistro, then struck out to open First National Green Room. Durant’s career includes a four-year stint in Puerto Rico working in an Indian restaurant, and he brings to his menu an eclectic assortment of curries, pastas, and American favorites—you might say Minnesota Nice plus spice. It takes some patience to navigate the ambitious selection, but Durant does get much of it right. The servers are unassuming and gracious and help put these global plates into a small-town context.
Try the fresh, hot papadums and pillowy batura that grace each Indian dish, as well as the appetizer of garlicky hummus-spiked baba ghanoush, a fine plate to share and a good place to start. Along the Indian spice trail, a light, bright yellow curry laces fresh seasonal vegetables in lemon, cilantro, and mint. One evening’s special, Caribbean-spiced duck breast, was tender and perfectly underdone.
The pastas, a far more predictable lot, are thoughtfully executed if not memorable. Take a ricotta spinach gnocchi in light parmesan broth or the rigatoni and chicken, sheathed in fragrant basil, the best of the lot. Similarly, the American favorites—fork-tender pork chops with mustard-spiked applesauce, grilled salmon with risotto cake—reflect the kitchen’s knack for simple ingredients, served with a smart touch. The desserts? A creamy latte crème brulée; a tower of fresh chocolate truffle cookies and cashew whipped cream; citrus shortcake with seasonal berries—what’s not to like?
I have to confess, though, that faced with too many unrelated choices—six pastas, five Indian plates, five American favorites—I feel a bit lost. Few of the appetizers—crab cake, lobster ceviche, and sushi tuna—relate to the larger plates. A little editing to give focus might make for a less disjointed, more relaxed, whole meal. It’s a small gripe, especially given the intimate and unpretentious vibe here. Schmitt seems to know every bar patron by name and what he or she drinks and chats up the small plates and local news. The chefs nod and wave to regulars as they enter the door. Durant is a young talent, and no doubt this place is helping “regreen” the pretty old town. First National Green Room will shine on long after the summer sun sets and tourists like me return home.
GETTING THERE, GETTING IN: Plenty of on-street parking plus free four-hour lots in town. It’s crowded on summer weekends, so call for reservations.
HOURS: M–Sa 11 am–11 pm, Su 5 pm—11 pm
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate KIDS: No kids menu CARDS: Amex, Discover, MC, Visa
ENTRÉE PRICES: $17–$28
3 Great Plates ...
1 Chana Masala A stew of garbanzo beans in a rich tomato masala, spiced with coriander and cumin and prettily garnished with hot, crispy papadums.
2 Oven Roasted Walleye Sparked with fresh cranberry thyme coulis and served on a vibrant wild rice pilaf, it’s a smart take on a Minnesota classic.
3 Lavender and Honey Cheesecake A sweet idea, pairing subtle notes of the piney herb and floral honey in a luscious creamy slice.